Working Together to Cross the ABD Gap

Jennifer Brier, December 2000

Over the last year a great deal of attention has been paid to the problems faced by graduate students who have yet to finish their dissertations. In both the panel entitled "Surviving the ABD Gap" at the 2000 AHA annual meeting and a follow-up article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the focus has been on what individual graduate students can do to complete the PhD. This piece looks at the problem of surviving as an ABD from a slightly different perspective. While I firmly believe that individuals need to work hard at completing their theses, it is also important that institutional solutions be brought to bear on the problems of slow matriculation. What can communities of graduate students, history departments, and academic institutions, and the AHA do to make completion likely for as many students as possible?

ABD graduate students can help each other by working together. Fostering discussion among groups of graduate students at similar stages in the writing process is a survival technique used at universities across the country. Dissertation support groups provide people with intellectual and emotional support necessary for writing what is, for most scholars, their first book. Another model that might help supplement this support would be to create peer mentoring for the later stages of graduate work. At many universities, first-year graduate students are paired with second- and third-year students to help them with the adjustment to graduate school. Using this model, students who have just finished their exams could be paired with those who are closer to dissertation completion. The benefits to this relationship are many. The new ABD would then have someone available to answer questions and provide help negotiating departmental and institutional challenges, while the more advanced students would have a new pair of eyes for their work. While this kind of peer mentoring happens on an informal level, graduate students need to work in conjunction with faculty and administrators to expand mentoring programs for all stages of graduate work. The combination of dissertation groups for writing and mentoring across levels would address many of the practical problems faced by the ABD.

History departments also have a role to play in ensuring higher completion rates. All too often, graduate students teaching commitments increases as they get closer to the final stages of the dissertation. This method of funding is counterproductive. Departments must recognize that a year to write without teaching will allow many fifth- and sixth-year students to finish faster. History departments should design funding packages that require as little teaching as possible in the last one or two years of the program, using fellowship funding for the final year whenever possible. Private institutions such as the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the Social Science Research Council have taken the lead in funding students in the latter stage of their work. Universities need to mirror that support. If increased funding overall is not a viable option,
students and faculty should discuss the possibility of redistributing funding aid from earlier to later stages in the PhD program. In addition, history departments must do more to help students isolate the right kinds of external grants for their projects and then aid in the grant writing process. These kinds of commitments will help students complete their dissertations faster.

The AHA has made significant strides over the last few years in providing assistance for its graduate student membership. But some simple improvements in that service can still be made. The AHA, in conjunction with its membership, needs to continue to address the lack of jobs for newly minted PhDs. The AHA can do this by pressing forward on two particular discussions, one on the role of adjuncts, the other on careers outside the academy. By considering the similarities between adjuncts and graduate students in the university, historians would address some of the key systemic issues preventing dissertation completion. The stresses on both groups are quite similar. Neither has much job security and neither has dependable benefits. This underemployment not only produces a two-tiered system within the university, it also creates a major stumbling block for people working to finish a dissertation. Clearly, jobs that provide fair wages and health care benefits would serve as a real motivator for ABDs to complete their dissertations. The AHA, and its entire membership, must continue to place pressure on academic institutions to recognize the inequities in their employment practices.

In an attempt to create even more employment possibilities, the AHA can also follow up on recent conversations about careers outside the academy in an attempt to place recent graduates. At the 1999 annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the "Alternative Careers" panel literally overflowed with people. The session organized by the Task Force on Graduate Education, the AHA committee responsible for assessing and addressing the needs of graduate students, drew more than 150 people. On the one hand, the attendees were concerned with how they were going to use their hard-earned PhD to repay immense student loans, and on the other, they were excited enough by history to willingly do whatever they had to do to stay involved with the discipline. Sadly, few faculty members attended the session.

If the Task Force on Graduate Education is committed to sponsoring an alternative careers panel again at the annual meeting, the AHA needs to strongly encourage department chairs and faculty to attend the session. Not only would this initiate a much-needed conversation about what students can do with a degree, it would also help departments take more responsibility when it comes to training students for jobs outside the academy.

Ultimately, completing a dissertation is a truly individual act. No one can actually write the dissertation but the graduate student. But even committed graduate students need the support of the larger community. This means thinking creatively about how limited funding should be utilized and where new PhDs will be employed once they complete their studies. Looking at surviving the ABD gap from this larger, systemic position will encourage individual actions in conjunction with institutional support and guidance.

—Jennifer Brier is a PhD candidate in American and gender history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.